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NEWS UPDATES 15 May 2010

Bangkok violence continues for third day, no end in sight yet

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Thai troops clashed with protesters for a third day in Bangkok on Saturday, as streets in the center of the Asian metropolis became battlegrounds and authorities struggled to contain Red Shirt demonstrators demanding the prime minister's resignation, the Associated Press reported.

Explosions and street fighting have killed 16 people and wounded nearly 160 since the government attempted Thursday to seal off the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) zone the Red Shirts have occupied in one of the capital's most upscale areas.

The spiraling violence, which has shifted from street to street over three days, has raised concerns that Thailand _ a longtime tourism magnet that promotes its easygoing culture as the "Land of Smiles" _ was teetering toward instability because of the two-month-long political crisis.

The army says its troop are not shooting to kill, but protesters during a lull in clashes Saturday crawled along sidewalks to slowly drag away corpses of three people near the city's Victory Monument traffic circle. They told an Associated Press photographer that army snipers had shot all three in the head.

On Friday, encircling troops used tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds on demonstrators and the protesters in turn set fire to tires and a police bus.

Sporadic clashes resumed in several parts of the city Saturday, and explosions once again echoed through streets emptied of shoppers and tourists, as plumes of black smoke rose amid skyscrapers and hotels.

In a message from New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to both sides to "do all within their power to avoid further violence and loss of life."

But with negotiations terminated, the situation appeared headed toward a final showdown on the streets.

"The situation right now is getting closer to civil war every minute," a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said Saturday morning. "We have to fight on. The leaders shouldn't even think about retreat when our brothers are ready to fight on."

The Red Shirt protesters began their latest campaign to oust the government in March, saying it came to power illegitimately and is indifferent to the poor. In several rounds of violence since then, a total 43 people have been killed and at least 1,620 wounded, according to a government toll that includes the most recent clashes.

Protesters have urged 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej to end his long silence and intervene, but there was no word from the widely revered ailing monarch.

"The Red Shirts seem determined to dig in, and the government seems just as determined to force an end to the protests," Tyrell Haberkorn, a political scientist with The Australian National University, said by e-mail. "Is there any realistic option other than, in the short term, a successful (if bloody) suppression of the protest?"

The latest violence erupted Thursday after the Red Shirts' military strategist _ a former Thai general _ was shot and seriously injured, apparently by a sharpshooter, as he spoke to foreign journalists.

Witnesses saw several groups of a dozen or more people detained at the scene of several clashes. No figures were released on how many were detained.

As night fell Friday, defiant Red Shirt leaders led followers in Buddhist prayers and called on volunteers to bring more tires for their barricades.

Another protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, demanded Saturday that the government declare a cease-fire and pull back its troops because "we don't want to see a civil war. If it does happen, I don't know how many years it will take to end."

The Red Shirts, mostly rural poor, began camping in the capital March 12 to try to force out Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They claim his coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military.

The military had forced Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist premier favored by the Red Shirts, from office in a 2006 coup. Two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were disbanded by court rulings before Abhisit became prime minister.

About 10,000 Red Shirts have barricaded themselves in a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) protest zone in Rajprasong, Bangkok's premier shopping and diplomatic enclave. They have set up a perimeter of tires and bamboo stakes, refusing to leave until Abhisit dissolves Parliament and calls new elections.

The occupation has forced luxury hotels and high-end shops to close for weeks. Major roads around the protest site were blocked to traffic Saturday, and the city's subway and elevated train shut down. The embassies of the United States, Britain and other countries were also closed.

The political uncertainty has spooked foreign investors and damaged the vital tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of the economy.

The crisis appeared to be reaching a resolution last week when Abhisit offered to hold elections in November, a year early. But the hopes were dashed after Red Shirt leaders made more demands. The Red Shirts have kept soldiers at bay by firing guns and homemade rockets, hurling rocks and commandeering government vehicles. Some bolder protesters came close to the soldiers on motorcycles, shouted obscenities and sped away.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said some protesters also used grenades and other weapons, and have an estimated 500 armed fighters.

The troops have kept their distance and made little progress toward their goal of clearing the streets.

Sansern said soldiers will tighten the perimeter around the protest site in the next few days and will conduct more intense operations without advance warning.

Bangkok residents found it hard to come to terms with the violence in their city, which prides itself as an exotic and welcoming gateway to the Land of Smiles, as Thailand is fondly known.

"I've never seen anything like this. I heard gunshots and explosions all day," said Kornvika Klinpraneat, a 7-Eleven employee. "This is like a civil war. The battle is being fought in the middle of the city."


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